No matter what your parenting style is, all parents want to keep their kids safe. The problem is, there are as many different products designed to protect your kids as there are dangers in the world. When it comes to car seats, parents are confronted with a range of different types and a range of different price tags. “Just getting [your] kid in the right restraint for their age and size is the best thing parents can do and the best money they can spend,” says Jessica Jermakian, a senior researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Still, with children needing some sort of child safety seat from birth up to 12 years old, it’s easy to get confused.

Child in rear facing car seat
(U.S. News and World Report)

There are three broad categories of child safety seats. Rear-facing child restraints, forward-facing child restraints and booster seats. Rear-facing child restraints come in two main types: a rear-facing infant carrier and a convertible-style seat that can be used in both rear- and forward-facing positions. With so many child car seats on the market, choosing the right seat can be tough – especially since car seat types and recommendations can change as new research becomes available. Here’s what you need to know to find the right car seat for your child.

Rear-facing Child Seats

Rear-facing infant seats are the first car seats many parents encounter. These types of seats are typically composed of an infant carrier portion, in which the infant is placed, and a base that is installed in the car. Many parents like this type of seat because it allows them to put their baby in the car and take them out without having to undo the baby’s harness. Jermakian points out, however, that most convertible seats can also work for most children from birth when they’re used as rear-facing seats.

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The most important thing for very young children and babies, according to Jermakian, is not the type of seat they’re in, but that they ride in a rear-facing position. “A rear-facing seat is safer for very small children,” she says. “The majority of crashes are frontal, and when you are rear-facing, you have the entire child restraint to absorb energy of the crash.” Rear-facing seats keep kids safe based on the principle of riding down the crash. When a car has a frontal crash, it suddenly decelerates in the opposite direction it was initially traveling. Because they’re already facing in the direction of the deceleration, there’s more time for the crash energy to dissipate before it reaches the kids in rear-facing seats.

That extra time is critical for the smallest kids. “Young children have very large heads and underdeveloped necks, so a rear-facing seat is much safer for them,” Jermakian explains. While an adult’s neck is better equipped to handle a forward-facing crash, babies and small toddlers just don’t have the muscle development needed to avoid serious injury while facing forward in a forward crash.

The IIHS, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend that babies and children ride in rear-facing seats until they are at least two years old or until they outgrow the highest height and weight allowed by their car seat’s specifications. “One big mistake that parents make in choosing a car seat is that they want to move the children to the next restraint too soon,” says Jermakian. “It really is safest to keep the child in a rear-facing restraint as long as possible.”

Forward-facing Child Seats

Forward-facing child safety restraints are child seats that are installed in the car using either the car’s LATCH system or seat belt and have their own five-point harness that the child wears. It’s important to use this type of seat for toddlers and young children because their bodies are not big enough to safely use seat belts, and the five-point harness restrains them more effectively during a collision.

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If you’ve been using a convertible rear-facing seat for your child, getting a forward-facing seat is as simple as turning the seat around, adjusting the tilt and reinstalling it. You can also purchase a forward-facing-only seat. So long as the seat has its own seat, back and harness system, it should work for young kids. Again, you should keep your child in this type of seat until they outgrow the manufacturer’s height and weight requirements for the seat. “There’s this notion of graduating to a new restraint type and we really don’t like to use that word because it implies it’s something that kids should look forward to, when what we want to do is encourage children staying in a type of restraint as long as possible before moving to the next type,” says Jermakian.

Booster Seats

Booster seats differ from forward-facing seats in that they don’t have their own back or restraint system. While other car seat types both restrain the child and help dissipate crash energy around them, booster seats allow the child to use the car’s existing seat belts. “Vehicle seat belts are designed for adults and they don’t fit children properly,” says Jermakian. “The lap belt can ride too high on the child’s belly and the shoulder belt can ride up on the neck, so the child may take it off, increasing the likelihood that they’ll be injured in a crash.” Even if the child leaves the seat belt alone, if they aren’t properly positioned for the best seat belt fit, their risk of injury in an accident increases.

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Booster seats are best for children who are too big for forward-facing car seats, but who are less than 4 feet 9 inches tall. Booster seats don’t need to be installed like car seats do. Instead, the child just sits on the booster and uses the car’s seat belt. A booster seat should allow the lap portion of the seat belt to be placed across the child’s hips and the shoulder belt to be placed on the child’s shoulder without digging into their neck. The child’s knees should also be bent at about a 90-degree angle.

More Resources

No matter what type of child seat you choose for your kid, no child under the age of 12 should ride in the front seat of a vehicle. Children under the age of 12 are at increased risk from the deployment of frontal air bags, and their bodies are too small to handle the forces associated with it. NHTSA’s Car Seat Finder tool is a great resource for parents looking for the right car seat for their child. The results not only tell you the type of seat you should be using, but also give you a list of car seat models that fit your needs. You can even use the tool to compare car seats and view NHTSA’s ease-of-use rating. IIHS has a video that covers both different types of car seats and basic installation. You can also visit seatcheck.org to find a car seat check in your area, where trained car seat technicians will check to make sure you have the right car seat for your child, and will check that it fits the child and is installed correctly.